5 Georgian ghost hoaxes

Terror of the supernatural was widespread in 18th-century Britain. Martha McGill serves up five examples of opportunists exploiting that fear for their own (often nefarious) ends – from committing robbery to spreading religious hate

In 1733, as part of a plot to blow up a Protestant church, a group of Catholics claimed they were being terrorised by a poltergeist… or so the story went. (Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)


1

Scratching Fanny’s quest for revenge

The 18th century may be known as the Age of Enlightenment but that doesn’t mean that Britons’ fear of the supernatural had passed into history. On the contrary, many of our Georgian ancestors regarded the threat of the paranormal as real and terrifying – and that left them vulnerable to the ghost hoax.

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Such hoaxes saw people pretending to be ghosts – or fabricating ghost stories – in order to advance their own interests. Those interests included spreading religious hate, securing the dream marriage… and, in the case of a London clerk called Richard Parsons, exacting revenge.

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In 1759, Parsons let a room in a house in Cock Lane to a widower called William Kent, who was accompanied by Fanny Lynes, his dead wife’s sister, and now his mistress. Relations soured when Parsons borrowed money from Kent and failed to repay it. Kent and Lynes moved out, and soon afterwards Lynes died, apparently of smallpox. In 1762, Parsons and his 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, reported the ghost of Lynes was haunting the house in Cock Lane. The ghost, known as ‘Scratching Fanny’ (because it sounded like it was clawing at the furniture), claimed that Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

The case attracted mass public attention. Newspapers across the country reported on it, and curious crowds went to visit Cock Lane. Educated men held séances to speak with Scratching Fanny, and the famous writer Samuel Johnson formed part of a commission that investigated. Finally it was determined that the whole thing was a hoax: instructed by her father, who wanted to get back at Kent, Elizabeth Parsons was acting the ghost. Richard Parsons was subsequently sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, and he was pilloried three times.

This case arose from a petty feud between Kent and Parsons. However, the controversy surrounding it demonstrates deeper fissures running through British society. Methodists argued that ghosts might be real; Anglicans rejected the possibility. Even after Richard Parsons was convicted, public opinion was divided.

Speaking some time later, Samuel Johnson summarised the continued uncertainty around ghosts: “It is wonderful that 5,000 years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.”

2

The marital woes of a fallen poltergeist

In 1737, an Aberdeenshire man called Geordie Watt went to his minister with an unusual conundrum: he was being tormented by the ghost of his dead mother. This spirit had informed him that it was “the will of the great God” that Watt should marry the family’s serving girl, Tibbie Mortimer, as she was destined for eternal glory. Unless Watt agreed to this unequal match, he and his six brothers would be “consumed with fire from heaven”.

(Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)
(Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)

Upon hearing this story, the minister agreed to visit Watt’s farm. The ghost duly appeared, and the minister charged at it. The ghost started to run away, but promptly fell over. The church records then note that the minister “made such a trial of the apparition as he thought agreeable to the principles of Christian revelation and true philosophy” – that is, he hit her with a stick, and so ascertained that she was no incorporeal spirit. Stripping away the ghost’s veil, the minister revealed Tibbie Mortimer herself.

The ghost appeared, and the minister charged at it. The ghost started to run away, but promptly fell over

The records suggest that Mortimer was pregnant; both she and Watt were fined for “fornication”. The church also found Mortimer guilty of blasphemy. On Sundays she had to sit at the front of the church service on the so-called Stool of Repentance, wearing coarse sackcloth – a  punishment that went on for over a year.

There is no record of what became of the child, but the sorry story does not seem to have ended in marriage.

A servant such as Mortimer was left with few options when she found herself pregnant, and so it appears that she cooked up the ghost ruse in an attempt to persuade Watt to marry her. By invoking supernatural authority, social underdogs could attempt to influence their ‘superiors’. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, the attempt fell flat on its face.

3

Acts of terror from beyond the grave

The question of whether or not ghosts exist has been debated for centuries. Protestant theologians thought they had the answer. Ghosts, they argued, were a Catholic superstition, and so they sought to discredit ‘papists’ by associating them with ghost hoaxes. Stories circulated of Catholic priests fabricating hauntings to exhort payment for exorcisms, or dressing up as ghosts to sneak into the bedrooms of virtuous young women.

One particularly dramatic case was reported in 1733, in a publication called Revolution Politicks. A group of Catholics supposedly attested that they had been terrorised by a spook. This ghost claimed that it could not rest unless its body was buried under the pulpit in one St Clement’s Church. After the Catholics made a ‘present’ to the local minister, he agreed to allow the burial, and the funeral took place.

That night, the rector dreamed that his church was on fire. His level-headed wife told him to go back to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, though, the dream returned. Finally the priest got up, dragged a gravedigger out of bed, and went to inspect the newly buried corpse. The two of them prised open the coffin – and instead of a corpse, they found “Fire balls, and other combustibles, and a match lighted in order to have blown up the church”.

It was claimed that Catholic priests dressed up as ghosts to sneak into the bedrooms of virtuous women

“Say some,” the author continued, “this was another intrigue laid against the church, as deep as the fifth of November.”

This tale of a hoax burial was almost certainly a hoax itself, but it demonstrates how ghost stories could be used to advance certain political or religious agendas. In the 1730s, amid fears of potential Jacobite invasion, stories such as this seemingly confirmed an accusation that many Britons already believed: that Catholics were enemies of the state.

In 1733, as part of a plot to blow up a Protestant church, a group of Catholics claimed they were being terrorised by a poltergeist… or so the story went. (Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)
In 1733, as part of a plot to blow up a Protestant church, a group of Catholics claimed they were being terrorised by a poltergeist… or so the story went. (Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)
4

Mugged by a knife-hurling apparition

Unscrupulous Georgians sometimes used ghost stories to scare their victims out of their wits – and their possessions. One example of such a crime came before the courts in 1810, after a woman called Margaret Salter targeted a Mary Anderson, who had been staying in the same lodging-house as her.

From the start, Salter behaved strangely, conducting what appeared to be rituals. She cut rings from white cloth and placed them in the fireplace; filled a teacup with sand and surrounded it with paper figures; and offered Anderson broth laced with a mystery powder.

There was worse to come. One day, the two were sitting together when a knife came hurtling across the room at Anderson. But who had thrown it? The assailant was the spirit of a man called Richard Connors, explained Salter. Connors was, in fact, alive. He made frequent visits to the guest house and later married Salter. But Salter claimed his spirit desired Anderson’s possessions, and would torture her if she refused. The naive Anderson was compelled to hand over a sprigged muslin gown, a cotton gown, a petticoat and stays, and five caps, among other accoutrements.

Eventually, Anderson wised up to the deception and went to the courts. Mr Justice Chambre fined Salter a shilling and sentenced her to 12 months’ imprisonment in the ‘House of Correction’. Connors was acquitted.

Salter was not alone in her opportunism. There are stories of villagers dressing up as spectres to swipe their neighbours’ chickens, or highwaymen donning white sheets to frighten gentlemen. Invoking the supernatural became a way to circumvent earthly norms of behaviour – in these cases, to pernicious ends.

(Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)
(Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)
5

The ghost that meant well… but ended up in jail

While some Georgians pretended to be ghosts for financial gain, at least one claimed a more altruistic motive.

In 1815, stories began to reach The Times of a supernatural being haunting St Andrew’s Holborn, London. A group of the “lower orders”, the newspaper reported, had begun gathering near the graveyard to look out for the phantom. One night a general alarm broke out: the ghost had appeared! It wandered between tombstones, laughing hysterically and letting out three “sepulchral groans”. Police officers were on the scene. Unperturbed by the apparition, they marched into the graveyard and found a young man in white trousers, a white shirt and a white cap.

(Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)
(Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)

Hauled before local magistrates, the youth identified himself as 16-year-old James Cainess. He explained that a gentleman had paid him to go into the graveyard and investigate the ghost. Having established that the spectre was no more than a shaft of moonlight striking a tombstone, Cainess decided to dress up as the ghost to catch the attention of the “credulous multitude”. His plan was then to “undeceive” them. After his respectable father vouched for his future good conduct, Cainess was released without punishment.

The young man’s plan chimed with a long-standing idea that combating superstition was a public service. In 1693, the Enlightenment thinker John Locke had urged parents to prevent maidservants from telling their children ghost stories, which might leave them afraid of the dark for the rest of their lives. Cainess may well have hoped to enlighten his neighbours by debunking the dreaded ghost. But his tactics suggest an ignorance of the lingering emotional power of first impressions.

In all of the cases in this article, scepticism won out in the end. But the stories reveal the persistent fear that ghosts might lurk in the shadows. We see this even in modern society: the BBC’s 1992 Ghostwatch hoax, a fictional drama presented as a live documentary, reportedly gave some viewers post-traumatic stress disorder.

Georgian ghost hoaxes reflect tensions that ran between different religious and social groups, and the curious strategies that individuals might adopt in the pursuit of social empowerment. They also reveal the enduring sinister allure of the supernatural world.

Martha McGill is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick. Her book Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2018

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This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine